Book Club Reflection: Just Kids by Patti Smith

18 Mar

I think discussion a memoir for a book club is the best kind of gossiping there is. We get to talk freely about someone’s life and criticize their memory and I feel privileged to do so. I guess that’s what you get if you ever write about yourself and publish it. I’ll have to take note of this.

My book club met last Monday to discuss our latest selection, Just Kids by Patti Smith. In my review I said that I felt removed from Smith because her fame was before my time. There were a few other people close to my age who felt the same way, but we were fortunate that our membership includes people who were in high school and college during the peak of her fame. Our discussion leader who chose this book is a huge fan of Smith’s and was very engrossed in the subject.

We all agreed that this book wasn’t really about Smith at all; it was about Robert. It was a story of how they lived together and above all it was a tribute to their love and a way for Patti to say that after all that had happened between them, she still loved him. We thought she hurt a lot more than him when they ended their romantic relationship together. She saw herself as Robert’s muse and not an artist in her own right. Robert pushed her to create and she likely would not have achieved her success without that push. He introduce her to the movers and shakers in their industry and got her foot in the door where it needed to go.

We asked ourselves what might have been different if Robert had written the book instead of Patti. I think he would have focused on her instead of himself. Patti glossed over her own fame toward the end of the book and how it took off so quickly. She was convinced to read a few poems and then wanted a guitarist to make her poetry different. From there she started writing songs, formed a band, and became widely successful. Robert’s last boyfriend even financed her first tour. I think Robert would have been fiercely proud of Patti’s success and downplayed his own notoriety. We also suspect that Smith used a lot more drugs than she let on and perhaps Robert would have given some insight into this. Our members felt that because of her family, she was reluctant to admit to her kids that she had been a part of the drug scene. Though, with a son who married Meg White of The White Stripes, I don’t think she’d surprise them. Smith has a new book coming out that we suspect will focus more on herself and her career. Maybe this is the book Robert would have written.

Robert’s relationship with his parents was complicated. We were surprised at how confident he was in his ability to be an artist given the strict religious upbringing he had and how it didn’t incite confidence in artistic ability. We questioned how long he had been in New York before het met Smith and suspected that the time he spent pursuing fame before he was introduced to the reader could have instilled that confidence. One part that was comical to me was when Robert was concerned about Smith moving away because his parents still thought they were married. It made us think that his parents must have not known about his art and we wondered how he planned to keep that secret from them. He seemed more worried about his sham of a marriage.

Of course we had to talk about Smith herself. She seemed very hard on herself and critical of anything she ever created. One of our members recalled her father telling her she wasn’t pretty enough to get married and we suspect that comment came from her early pregnancy. We thought it was so interesting that her look was so androgynous while she was in New York. One of our members couldn’t tell Robert and Patti apart in the pictures. That might even be because Mapplethorpe wanted her to look like him or himself to look like her. Even Alan Ginsberg couldn’t tell her gender just looking at her. I wonder how much of this escape from traditional feminine beauty was because of what her father said.

We wondered about why Smith would have been so successful so quickly after Robert fought an uphill battle for his own notoriety. One suggestion is that her medium was a lot more mainstream at the time, even if her style was different from anyone at the time. I suspect that the publicity of the 1970s would have lent itself more to a performance artist than a print artist.

New York City itself was a large player in Smith’s story. They were both so driven to make it in such a harsh and unforgiving place. The Chelsea Hotel was the point where they started living in an artist’s world and rubbing elbows with the right people. It was a Mecca for starving artist and that glamorous lifestyle. We wondered why the landlord would take art as a security deposit. The book portrayed it as his love for art and his support of starving artists. More likely, he know that the tenants were so attached to their portfolios that they would be sure to make payments to get them back.

The appeal of a memoir over an autobiography is that the writer doesn’t have to research the details of what happened to them and report them with 100% accuracy. They can write from memory, and sometimes memory is fuzzy. And sometimes, memories are altered by what we want them to be. We thought Smith glossed over the drug community that must have existed in the Chelsea Hotel. She claimed to not participate in it, but we were suspicious that she did more than she let on. She has children now and Smith wouldn’t want them knowing all the gritty details of her drug use. Wouldn’t Smith have been a bit of an outcast in the community if she didn’t share in the drug culture?

The member of our group who remember the 1970s emphasized how much this book is a result of the time. Before AIDS, free love had no consequences. There was nothing you could get that couldn’t be cured. (On a side note, Dallas Buyers Club depicts this beautifully as well.) Everyone wanted to rebel against the anger they had surrounding the Vietnam War and drugs were a way to do that. A few of our members recalled that those who they saw in the heavy drug culture and free love tended to be rich kids who felt it was a privileged scene. They were those who had enough money and support from home that they could afford the drugs and have a second chance if they messed up. For Smith, it wasn’t a ‘cool’ place to be; it was her life. She could have gone home so many times, but she didn’t. Did she stay because of Robert?

Smith name-dropped a lot in the book; Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. Do we really believe it all? Or is this a part of the selected memory? Some of the people she would say she met in the Chelsea Hotel were already rich and famous. Why would they be living in what is described as such a run-down and dirty place? I feel that this might be one place where Smith’s memories wouldn’t check out with actual history.

The book was filled with so much loss; suicide, theft, death, and disappointment. It became commonplace, almost predictable, for Smith and Mapplethorpe. It was part of New York City for them. Our members recalled that NYC was a lot more dangerous in the 70s. Robert kept telling Patti he would protect her and he did.

Writer’s Takeaway: The group loved Smith’s writing style. It was clear that she was a poet who has a strong command with words. Her vocabulary was good, something uncommon in celebrity writing, and her style was very engaging. We liked the small vignette style and it reminded us of a diary. One members suspects that much of this book was re-written sections of Smith’s personal diary during the time she was in New York.

We’ll meet next month to talk about Kazo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. I read this title about a year ago so I won’t re-read it, but I’m so excited to discuss it!

Until next time, write on.

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